Monday 30 January 2023

Who needs honesty?


It seems that ‘allies’ of the now ex-Chair of the Tory Party are briefing that he is very upset about being sacked and feels that he hasn’t had a fair hearing, despite all the PM’s talk of following ‘due process’ before sacking Zahawi. In truth, ministers always hold their jobs at the pleasure of the PM; the PM can hire and fire people any time he likes with no need for any explanation or process of any sort, as plenty of ex-ministers – in all parties – can attest. Sunak didn’t need to follow any process other than telling Zahawi he was out. Once he’d announced an enquiry, Zahawi probably had a reasonable expectation that the enquiry would take longer than a few days. Normal process in such investigations is that the investigations are drawn out as long as possible in the vague hope that the issue might go away. (Spoiler: it never does.)

The enquiry was never about his tax affairs as such, that was deemed out of scope. It was, rather, all about what he did – or more generally did not – tell the relevant people at the right time. Setting the scope in that way is revealing in itself – it means that for a minister to seek to avoid paying tax which is due is not considered a matter for the ethics advisor, nor a bar to serving in the cabinet, as long as he owns up to it before taking on any job. It’s a strange definition of honesty. He claims to have evidence that some of the claims about him not having told the right people the right things at the right time are wrong, and if he’s telling the truth about that (not an assumption that one should necessarily rely on in the circumstances) then he might even have reasonable cause for complaint about the conduct of the investigation. That still would not circumvent that fact that Sunak could have sacked him arbitrarily at any time anyway.

His underlying claim that he wasn’t dishonest, just incompetent, isn’t quite the ‘get-out-of-jail’ card that he seems to think. He might be better advised to start questioning why he is being held to a higher standard of honesty than has been expected of his ministerial colleagues, but I can understand why none of them might be over-keen to open that particular can of invertebrates. Pleading incompetence isn’t the only instance of people using curious arguments. After saying that it is right for Zahawi to be sacked for what the advisor clearly saw as a lack of honesty and openness, Tory spokespeople are lining up to say that he should not be forced out as an MP. But arguing that being an MP doesn’t require the same level of honesty as being a minister isn’t exactly a killer argument either.

Sunak must be starting to wonder whether Johnson didn’t have the right approach after all: don’t have an ethics advisor and don’t worry about ethics. Through his actions, Johnson has shown, time and time again, that he believes honesty to be an over-rated attribute in a candidate for high office and, for three years, Sunak was happy to go along with that approach. But then he appointed Braverman back into a job from which she was forced out due to a breach of the ministerial code, and his spokesperson today has declined to rule out a cabinet return for Zahawi in the future. Perhaps Sunak and Johnson aren’t really that different after all; Sunak merely lacks the insouciance, and the ability to lie directly and repeatedly, with which Johnson dismissed any and every ethical criticism.

No comments: